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(c) 2015 MBARI

Inside the Mysterious Hydrothermal Vents Found Deep Below the Gulf of California

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(c) 2015 MBARI

This spring, scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) discovered a field of ocean vents spewing super-heated water into the bottom of the ocean between Baja California and the rest of Mexico. There are plenty of these hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of North and Central America, stretching from Canada down to Costa Rica, but this one is different. For one thing, at 12,500 feet below the surface, the Pescadero Basin vents are the deepest. And its structure is one never seen in the northern hemisphere. 

Most hydrothermal vents in North America are volcanic in origin and are found on top of basalt rock. Known as black smokers, they shoot out dark, mineral-rich water. These newly-discovered towering vent chimneys, though, are white, and are made up of calcium carbonate, formed when super-hot water (as high as 554 degrees Fahrenheit) emerged from the sea floor and mixed with frigid ocean water. Unlike the basalt vents, they emit clear hot water rather than black smokey liquidThis is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen on the bottom of the ocean,” Robert C. Vrijenhoek, a senior scientist and biologist at MBARI, tells mental_floss

The odd vents also feature unusual marine life rare to other locales. They’re covered in organisms, especially tubeworms of the genus Oasisia. “They cover the carbonate chimneys top to bottom, as high as 30 meters [98 feet],” Vrijenhoek says. “It’s like a garden of red flowers. It’s incredible.” 

Vrijenhoek and his colleagues are still classifying the exact species present at the Pescadero Basin vents.  Though found elsewhere in the world, the tubeworms, clams, squat lobsters, and other life that cling to the vents appear in larger numbers in the Pescadero Basin than have been observed elsewhere, while common vent animals like riftia tubeworms are rare, for reasons the scientists cannot yet fully explain. “This unique depth and chemistry has favored a subset of species that might not be common elsewhere,” Vrijenhoek says. 

However, they do have some clues. “We think this deep basin [the vents are] located in doesn’t have an ocean crust layer,” hypothesizes marine geologist Dave Clague, a senior scientist at MBARI who led the project. “It’s essentially mantle rock that’s exposed,” he guesses. There are similar crust-less spots in the Indian Ocean and the mid-Atlantic, but this would be the first spot where the mantle is covered by hydrothermal vents and, of course, the resulting towers upon towers of tubeworms.  

[h/t: National Geographic]

All images (c) 2015 MBARI

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]